Pau Gasol's 2014-15 season, by most accounts, was a grand success, and it's pretty safe to say he's the best free agent signing in franchise history. Gasol set a career-high in rebounds per game (11.8) whilst blocking 147 total shots, the first time he'd blocked that many since the 2005-06 season. Oh, and he chipped in a robust 18.5 points per game. Plus he's intellectual, kind, and a great human being who everyone should want to root for.
However, Gasol's season was not universally praised, and rightfully so. Yes, Gasol was an All-Star, and yes, he was All-NBA 2nd team. What those accolades do represent is a successful season in a nutshell, but not the entire story. Once you start digging deeper into Gasol's season, you'll find that beyond traditional box score statistics there's more than what meets the eye.
Gasol's importance to the Bulls was paramount (which we'll touch more on later), but during the regular season his numbers felt strangely hollow. Gasol graded out favorably in the simple all-purpose stat of PER with a 22.7, which tied for the fourth-best rating of his career and placed him in the top-ten for the entire league.
But for what Gasol could provide on the offensive end, he seemingly gave right back defensively. Some of the more all-encompassing metrics out there -- ESPN's Real Plus-Minus (RPM), for example -- did an adequate job of measuring Gasol's game evenly. Gasol's RPM was 2.30, which wedged him between Tyler Hansbrough and Kenneth Faried among power forwards, yet slightly below Jusuf Nurkic and slightly above Al Horford among centers. Gasol's probably closer to Horford than he is Hansbrough, so keep in mind that stats like these serve as a framework and not much else.
The first issue we must tackle is the distinction between being a shot blocker and a rim protector. As most fans are generally aware of by now, the term rim protector has firmly established itself in the lexicon of the NBA world. This thinking means blocks tell a part of the story, but not the entire thing, and gives value to defending, altering and contesting shots at the rim. And to be sure, we're better off for thinking of certain big men -- Rudy Gobert, Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert, etc -- as being both a rim protector and a shot blocker.
Gasol is most certainly a shot blocker. As mentioned, Gasol blocked 147 shots last season, which was good for seventh-best in the league. Of course, there's inherent value in that, but what does that mean as it pertains to Gasol's rim defending ability? Seth Partnow's rim protection stats (which can be found over at Nylon Calculus) credit Gasol for saving around 1.20 points per 36 minutes. For reference, only five big men saved over 2.0 points a game per 36 minutes last season. SportVU Player Tracking data then shows that Gasol faced the highest volume of opponent shots at the rim last season, averaging out to 10.3 shots per game.
Intuitively, the opponents shots per game figure suggests that teams were willingly attacking Gasol on a nightly basis. Of course, when the operative goal of an offense is to score baskets in the easiest method possible -- yes, a layup or dunk is still, and always will be, the best shot in basketball -- it's damn near impossible to avoid a 7-footer who predominately is stationed in the paint. To Gasol's credit, he plays very long and very tall, not a shared trait among all big men. He's not a horrible defender in the paint or around the rim, but he's not an elite defensive big by any stretch of the imagination, either.
Where it becomes incredibly difficult to quantify Gasol's defense is how well he defends the most common play in basketball: the pick-and-roll. According to Synergy's Play Type statistics, Gasol finished in the 56th percentile as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations. Not awful, but not amazing. The next step, then, is to use some visual evidence. Back in April, I detailed Gasol's lack of mobility, and it wasn't pretty. Here are the cuts.
Needless to say, Pau's not the quickest guy in the world. He probably knows this, and as mentioned, does an admirable job of playing big in order to compensate. The main issue, though, is that teams were relentless in forcing Gasol to defend pick-and-roll, and that's extremely unlikely to change. So long as teams view Gasol as a matchup they intend to exploit, it's worth questioning how effective a defender he really is.
Perhaps the most integral part of defense is rebounding, because you cannot complete a possession until you've gained possession of the ball. NBA.com/stats shows that a curious portion of Gasol's rebounds from last season came uncontested (63.6 percent). In comparison, Joakim Noah's rebounds come out to nearly a 50-50 split in terms of contested vs uncontested (48.3 and 51.7, respectively).
As best I can ascertain, this suggests Gasol was pretty fortunate and that easy misses had a tendency to find him, but since he was also positioned around the hoop a lot, that would make sense. So while the contested vs uncontested thing doesn't alarm me, what is alarming is the fact that the Bulls (per NBAwowy.com) grabbed a higher percentage of rebound opportunities with Gasol out of the game (52.1 percent) than in the game (50.8 percent). Typically, the opposite holds true for rebounders who are at least considered above average. Of the top ten individual rebounders last season, only Gasol saw his team's percentage of available rebounds obtained increase when off the court.
None of this is to say Gasol's bad at rebounding. Just that, again, Gasol's not as elite as the raw box score numbers make him out to be. Do I wish Gasol would box out a little more often? Of course. Do I think he's detrimental towards team rebounding? Of course not! I would just caution anyone from thinking that Joakim Noah is not the team's best rebounder anymore.
So, despite having said all this, Gasol was still greatly important to the Bulls last season, but it was mostly due to his offense. I feel confident in saying that I've never felt more comfortable with any player wearing a Bulls uniform shooting a 16-foot jumper than I am with Gasol. (I was born in '91, work with me here).
Across the board, Gasol was a lights out shooter last season:
It's also remarkable that Gasol, at age 34 last season, logged 2,681 minutes and missed only four regular season games. Anyone who questioned Gasol's commitment -- remember this? -- simply wasn't paying close enough attention. Gasol routinely played entire first and third quarters last season under Tom Thibodeau. Also, Gasol's importance was never more apparent than when he went down with a hamstring injury during the Cleveland series. Truly a case of not knowing what you've got until it's gone. Pau mattered a lot to the Bulls offense last season, and he deserves proper recognition for that.
Pau's second season
Naturally, many fans -- seemingly forgetting that the Bulls do not participate in trades unless they dump salary -- raised the possibility of trading Gasol. I understand the rationale, seeing as his value will never be higher. One main reason why I'm opposed, though: the best offensive play the Bulls have at this very moment is Gasol in a pick-and-pop with Derrick Rose. For all we know, Gasol and Fred Hoiberg's offense may be a bad fit. But for all the mythologizing of Hoiberg's offense I've read, I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone suggest using Gasol as a stretch-5 of sorts. I wouldn't rule that idea out.
Another reason to keep Pau is for Hoiberg to remove him from the starting lineup, where he would absolutely destroy bench units as a sixth man. Speculative discourse says Gasol would be unlikely to embrace a bench role, which may or may not be true. Gasol's consistently conducted himself as a professional here in Chicago, and, by all accounts, is well-liked and respected by his teammates. I get that egos are at play. But whether it's Gasol or Noah who sits, I know that one simple change in the starting lineup represents the best chance the Bulls stand at improving internally next season.